Once the shock and the horror from the events in Las Vegas begin to wear off, there are some difficult questions that need to be asked: how did this ever happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
If there is one positive that can be taken from this tragedy, it is that the race at Las Vegas was the final event of the Indycar season. There are some six months before the next race in St. Petersburg, so Indycar is not under any pressure to rush in changes to the sport. They can make it safer, they can do it properly, and they will not necessarily have to do it in such a way that compromises the speed of the series – because I believe that slowing everyone down for the sake of it is a poor way to remember someone who dedicated their life to going faster.
I believe there were several factors that led to the pile-up. Taken in isolation, they are innocuous enough, but when combined, I think they played a significant role in the accident:
1) Las Vegas Motor Speedway – LVMS is one of the fastest circuits on the calendar. It is a 1.5-mile superspeedway with a tri-oval format. The banking in the corners is some twenty degrees (second only to Texas Motorspeedway, which has twenty-four degree banking). The entire circuit is designed to be as fast as possible; teams are able to run lower-downforce configurations than they would otherwise, and the lower G-forces mean there is less stress on the drivers. It is, quite possibly, too fast.
2) The $5 million bounty on the race – in an effort to promote the final race of the season, promoters offered an additional $5 million in prize money to any part-time driver who could win the race. Dan Wheldon was one of these drivers. I do not know exactly how many drivers took up a wildcard entry, but there were thirty-five drivers on the grid in Las Vegas, up from the usual twenty-five (Wheldon raced in the place of Alex Tagliani). That means that the grid at LVMS was 40% larger than it would normally be.
3) The decline of oval races – ever since CART and the IRL merged, the series has gradually gravitated towards road and street circuits, and this trend will only continue into 2012. Of the seventeen events on the 2011 calendar, only seven were on ovals. Eight of the seventeen races in 2010 were on ovals. In fact, the last time oval races out-numbered road and street races was in 2009. So even the drivers who have been in the sport for two years have less experience on ovals than some of the other drivers (ie Castroneves, Franchitti, Dixon, Power).
The question now naturally becomes what Indycar can do in order to prevent something like this from ever happening again. I believe the ICONIC cars – developed with Wheldon’s input – are a step in the right direction; large sections of bodywork have been placed behind the rear wheels in particular, which I think will prevent cars from launching off one another.